School choice expansion clears state board

December 17, 2021

Ray Carter

Expansion and preservation of school-choice opportunities in Oklahoma won strong approval from members of the State Board of Education at this month’s meeting.

The board voted to allow five more private schools to serve foster children, adopted children, and students with special needs whose tuition is covered with taxpayer funds through the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program.

The board also voted to extend its sponsorship of three public charter schools that serve as an alternative option to local traditional public schools.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program provides scholarships to students with special needs and foster children, allowing them to attend private schools. A share of the per-pupil amount that would be spent on the education of each LNH recipient in public school is instead provided to parents to pay for the education of that same child at any approved private school.

During their December meeting, the State Board of Education voted to approve the applications of five additional private schools, allowing those schools to serve LNH students.

The five schools receiving LNH approval were Claremore Christian School, James Caraway Christian Academy in Chickasha, School of Saint Mary in Tulsa, St. Mary’s Catholic School in Ponca City, and Terra Verde Discovery School in Norman.

With the addition of those five schools, there are now 78 private schools across Oklahoma, in both urban and rural areas, that can serve LNH students.

The growth of LNH providers is occurring after prior bureaucratic efforts to bar most private schools from serving LNH students.

When the LNH law was approved in 2010, it included a provision mandating that participating private schools could not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

However, several years after the passage of the LNH law—after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister became head of the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE)—officials at OSDE rewrote the regulations governing the LNH program to also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and religious affiliation. Those revisions were then approved by the State Board of Education, which at that time consisted of Hofmeister and members appointed by then-Gov. Mary Fallin.

The revised regulations effectively required private religious schools that adhere to traditional Christian teachings to nonetheless hire atheists and abandon student code-of-conduct requirements regarding sexuality and marriage if they accepted LNH students.

In November 2020, the revised OSDE regulations led the State Board of Education—by that time consisting mostly of Gov. Kevin Stitt appointees who were not involved in the earlier revision process—to initially reject the application of one private Christian school that sought to serve LNH students.

However, an official opinion issued by the office of then-Attorney General Mike Hunter soon concluded the Oklahoma State Department of Education acted illegally when staff rewrote the LNH regulations. The opinion stated that “as a straightforward textual matter, private schools that seek to participate in the Henry Program must not discriminate on the basis of ‘race, color, or national origin.’ Nothing else is required … with respect to nondiscrimination.”

The State Board of Education then approved the previously rejected application and has now approved several other providers.

During its December meeting, the State Board of Education also voted to approve five-year contract renewals extending the board’s sponsorship of three public charter schools: the Academy of Seminole, LeMonde International School in Norman, and a charter school run by the Office of Juvenile Affairs.

Under state law, the State Board of Education may sponsor a charter school if a local school district refuses to act as a sponsor.

State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies praised officials with the Academy of Seminole, which faced strong opposition from a nearby traditional public-school district, saying the charter school has proven its naysayers wrong.

“I just want to applaud you for the work that you’ve done in that community and your school,” Monies said. “I’ve been out there and I’ve seen it. The kids love your school and I think it’s added a lot to the community.”